Sudan: an indictment of liberal intervention

Prosecuting President Omar al-Bashir for genocide might make Westerners feel good, but it will only exacerbate the conflict in Darfur.

Tara McCormack

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For the past few months, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan must have thought that the Western obsession with Darfur was finally subsiding as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, became flavour of the month for Western politicians seeking to claim the moral high ground. But Mugabe was knocked off the front pages this week when Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced that he would be asking the Court to issue an indictment against al-Bashir for committing genocide and for crimes against humanity.

The ICC has previously indicted a Sudanese government minister, Ahmed Harun, and a militia leader, Ali Kushayb, for crimes against humanity. But if the ICC agrees with Moreno-Ocampo’s request, al-Bashir will be the first sitting head of state to be indicted. Moreno-Ocampo has explicitly compared Sudan to Nazi Germany and the ongoing civil war there to the Holocaust. He has argued that whilst the international community ‘failed’ in Rwanda and the Balkans, the existence of the ICC today means that the international community will not fail again in Sudan (1). The ICC judges now have three months to confer.

The request for an indictment is the result of UN Security Council resolution 1593 in 2005, in which the Security Council ‘referred’ the situation in Darfur to the prosecutor of the ICC (2). In the context of the utter disaster that is post-invasion Iraq and the increasing chaos of Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict in Darfur has became one of the pet projects of Western politicians, intellectuals and activists keen to rehabilitate liberal interventionism. The brutal civil war in Darfur has offered great opportunities for moral posturing, leading to the presentation of a complicated conflict as a simple morality tale about evil Arabs killing poor Africans purely because of their race. As Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University, has incisively argued, Darfur is generally understood as a place without context or politics (3).

President Sarkozy of France and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have vowed to make the conflict in Darfur a top priority for French foreign policy (although Sarkozy has temporarily abandoned such small fry and has decided that peace in the Middle East will be his legacy). Celebrities and intellectuals have joined in to demand Western action in Darfur. Though some of them have been critical of the Iraq debacle, they are uncritically presenting the conflict in Sudan in the starkest terms. Hollywood star George Clooney, for example, has campaigned extensively for intervention in Darfur, arguing in the UN security council that Darfur was ‘their [the Security Council’s] Auschwitz’ (4). The current US presidential candidates have issued a joint statement on Darfur, condemning the conflict there as genocide (5).

However, far from being a powerful central state intent on stamping out any other ethnic groups, al-Bashir’s unpleasant regime in Khartoum is weak, as shown by the way in which it has had to outsource much of its fighting to various militia groups (known in the Western press as ‘janjaweed’). Neither is the world witnessing a genocide in which Arabs are attempting to exterminate tribes of black Africans. Rather, the conflict in Darfur is a complicated one involving disputes over land rights and pitching various groups against each other and against the government (6). Rebel forces have also committed many terrible acts of violence and reneged on previous peace deals.

For advocacy groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition, the request for an indictment is hailed as one step closer to fulfilling their calls for greater Western intervention in Sudan and the resolution of the conflict. However, whilst in the minds of those clamouring for more intervention, the international community is envisaged as a kind of deux ex machina, descending to dispense peace and justice, the reality is very different. The immediate impact of the indictment has been a mass evacuation of UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers from Darfur in anticipation of reprisals. As the British writers Julie Flint and Alex De Waal have pointed out, this could be a major problem for the people in Darfur, one third of them being dependant on international aid (7).

The Sudanese deputy parliamentary speaker, Muhammad al-Hassan al-Ameen drew attention to the irrational situation that has been created: the international community wants the Sudanese government to treat the UN in Darfur as neutrals, whilst simultaneously indicting the head of state. ‘The UN asks us to keep its people safe, but how can we guarantee their safety when they want to seize our head of state?’, he said (8).

Critics have argued that Moreno-Ocampo got it wrong in a number of ways: by pressing for a charge of genocide rather than the lesser one of crimes against humanity and by making such a public statement instead of issuing a sealed indictment. Some argue that the action will only make al-Bashir more intractable. Certainly, the long-term impact of the indictment will doubtless serve to destabilise Sudan’s fragile political system even further. One of al-Bashir’s presidential advisers has argued that the indictment will have the impact of severely eroding al-Bashir’s authority both with the army and with his National Congress party.

For the rebel forces both in Darfur and in the South of Sudan (in which a decades-long civil war ended in 2005), the indictment removes any onus on them to negotiate or participate in any kind of political or power-sharing arrangements (9). The outcome of this intervention is highly unlikely to be peace and prosperity, but rather the further fragmentation of the state with all the associated misery, death and destruction that this will entail. The international community has effectively removed any need for political negotiation and compromise between the warring parties, the only thing which can end the conflict.

However, whilst this recent intervention is highlighted as problematic, what is ignored by the critics is that the conflict in Darfur is already completely internationalised. Sudan has already accepted three peacekeeping forces (10) and negotiated internationally brokered peace deals, for example under the auspices of the African Union. Often it has been the rebel forces that have broken peace deals. In May, one of the main rebel forces launched a major attack on Khartoum, which was narrowly defeated by the government. The leader of this rebel group, Khalil Ibrahim, has sworn that he will oust al-Bashir by force (11). Rather than resolving the conflict, international engagement, intervention and moralisation has served to exacerbate it. However, Western elites and other advocates of intervention will not permit these inconvenient facts to get in the way of a good morality play.

It seems that liberal interventionists will not learn any lessons from recent disastrous interventions. The next intervention will always be ‘the one’, the great and pure and successful example that will finally prove the moral superiority of crusading Western elites and rehabilitate the idea of humanitarian intervention. Frankly, it appears that they do not care how much blood is spilt or how many lives lost in the process. All that is needed is for the UN or the ICC to intervene in the right way and all will be resolved.

For advocates of the ICC, its establishment has heralded a victory for the powerless victims of state oppression, ushering in an era in which human rights and justice will reign and in which states will be held accountable on behalf of their citizens. The reality is that the citizens of weak and fragile states are further disempowered in this brave new world as the international community intervenes with impunity in the name of human rights and international law.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster. She is producing two debates as part of this year’s Battle of Ideas festival: The state we’re in: What is the point of British foreign policy? on Thursday 9 October, and Is America still the world’s policeman? on Sunday 2 November.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler analysed ‘the death of foreign policy’. Philip Cunliffe argued that Darfur had been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. Brendan O’Neill looked at the prostitution of the notion of genocide. He also argued that Darfur was damned by pity, while in 2004, he called the proposed Sudanese intervention a post-Iraq politcal stunt. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) Darfur genocide charges for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, Guardian, 14 July 2008

(2) Security Council refers situation in Darfur, Sudan to prosecutor, UN Security Council

(3) Mahmood Mamdani, The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(4) Clooney begs UN to act on Darfur, BBC News, 14 September 2006

(5) We stand united on Sudan, Save Darfur Coalition

(6) Mahmood Mamdani, The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(7) ‘This prosecution will endanger the people we wish to defend in Sudan’, Observer, 13 July 2008

(8) China may veto attempt to arrest Sudanese president on genocide charges, Guardian, 15 July 2008

(9) Court’s indictment of Bashir pours salt on Sudan’s wounds, Financial Times, 16 July 2008

(10) See Darfur: colonised by peacekeepers, by Philip Cunliffe

(11) Court’s indictment of Bashir pours salt on Sudan’s wounds, Financial Times, 16 July 2008

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